Making positive progress
In his last month as chief executive of CPRE, Crispin Truman reflects on the past five years and his hopes for the charity’s future.
My five years at CPRE have flown by, packed with change, progress, frustration, excitement, and plans – and the unplanned – achieved. Two years of pandemic and lockdown certainly weren’t on my agenda back in 2017.
When I look back over those five years to why I joined CPRE, three things stand out. The first was my urgent, personal desire to do something in my career which involved protecting and enhancing the natural environment and, in particular, our countryside and green space most at risk.
I was and am driven by the conviction that we neglect and destroy – needlessly – green space in and around our towns and cities for so-called ‘essential’ infrastructure because we value these spaces too little. Our dependence on cars has made us believe that travelling a long way to get to nature is somehow OK and to forget that a third of households have no access to a private vehicle.
Access to the countryside
CPRE of course has a fine history of first leading the fight to establish – and then championing – the Green Belt. This was, and is, a massive success for planning and countryside protection in England, despite the destructive efforts of those without the imagination to think where else we can put development.
One of the things about which I am most proud is that, with our much stronger focus on the positive value of countryside to people, nature and the climate, CPRE has successfully shifted the debate on Green Belt. Too often in the past we found ourselves on the defensive, fighting ill-thought-out schemes for building in under-appreciated Green Belt and thereby making it easy for our detractors to claim we were opposed to people having the housing they need.
The work we did in 2019 to rediscover CPRE’s true purpose of ‘positive progress for the countryside’ has now resulted in the conversation being all about how we enhance and promote (and increase!) Green Belt as a vital resource for modern towns and cities. The government has always said it wants to protect Green Belt, but all too often has undermined its own conviction through unbearable pressure on local authorities with top-down targets for housebuilding, as defined by the market and developers.
But now, and in no small way thanks to the evidence-based, careful and respected lobbying of CPRE’s expert policy team, government is inching back towards the brownfield-first regulation that it should never have abandoned in 2010.
Making local national
The second reason I joined CPRE was the way it so powerfully combines expert national lobbying and influencing, with a nationwide network of local, voluntary-led campaigners. CPRE is democracy in action, empowering the most disempowered who just want the best for their local environment.
These are the people who, time and time again, are forced to fight for our countryside against the wealthy, vested interests and careless power of developers and governments. Over 40 local CPREs bring the grassroots passion, energy and local knowledge and presence which is absolutely integral to the campaign’s long-term success.
One of the most enjoyable parts of my job therefore, has been visiting and working with our volunteers round the country. And the impact of the volunteering and partnerships directorate which I established right at the start of my time with CPRE, is one of the things of which I’m most proud. Strategic, collaborative support and enabling of local groups to build capacity and systems has begun to create a modern, effective local CPRE network.
Key to the future of our countryside and of CPRE is widening engagement and the opportunities for people to make an active contribution to its enhancement. We’ve seen real progress here at CPRE, with our hugely successful hedgerow projects and many smaller new volunteering activities across our local groups providing hard evidence of impact.
Our vital local presence also adds hugely to the credibility of the national policy and campaigning work. Because CPRE’s success is equally about the rigour and influence of its highly-respected, expert professional team working away to shift national policy and legislation and to build public support in favour of our invaluable countryside and green space, for the long term: resolute, evidence-based and strategic. That experienced team is the power-tool in CPRE’s box and needs to be nurtured, respected and trusted to deliver the influence and voice at all levels of government that CPRE members expect.
Combined, the national expert resource with the local volunteer campaign presence, is the best chance England’s pressurised countryside has of being there for all of us in the future. Uniting local and national causes is also hugely attractive to the public who both care about the countryside on their doorstep and want to know that someone – CPRE – is doing something about the countryside nationally.
Building unusual partnerships
The third, rare, valuable and fragile aspect of CPRE which attracted me and which we must always work to protect, is that of its holistic, moderate, balanced position and policy. In our world of silos, simplistic binary positions, black and white arguments that create such conflict and dysfunction, CPRE’s raison d’etre is to cut across divisions and divides, to talk about people and nature and the vital interaction between them, to address social, economic, natural and built environment issues and the interdependencies between them, together.
That’s not to say that being joined-up makes for a simple life.
It is entirely possible for the human brain to hold both concepts of beauty and social justice in relation to the countryside, at the same time and for them not to contradict each other. We need to fight for the right of everyone in this country to benefit from the enjoyment and wellbeing of the countryside and we need to fight for beauty. In fact, they go together and the vision of a better society with a thriving rural life and accessible beautiful countryside for all is at the heart of CPRE’s vision.
CPRE the countryside charity’s great strength is that it brings together a wide spectrum of people of different backgrounds, views and politics, in a shared love of the countryside: landowners and ramblers, rural and urban, volunteers and professionals, London and not-London.
We are a countryside charity but a vital and major part of our business – influencing government –takes place in London. These are just different sides of the same countryside coin and often contained in the same person: I live in Hackney and I love the countryside.
Making the vision a reality
Everyone at CPRE loves the countryside, fears for it and is committed to saving it. That’s what matters.
And to enhance and protect the countryside, we have to build a louder, bigger, more diverse voice. And that means far more people visiting, working, living in and loving it.
So that must be the goal for CPRE as it approaches its centenary in 2026. To create a much louder, unifying voice for the countryside so that it becomes impossible for decisionmakers and those with money and power to trade-off our need for access to green space and beautiful landscapes, nature’s need for protection and the climate’s need for countryside, against other needs and interests.
21 September 2022 update: Crispin Truman is to be the new Director at The Rayne Foundation. You can read more about this appointment here.